Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005


You don't grow up near New York, you don't live as a pauper teenaged student in New York, without learning how to disregard the incessant impositions on your kindness obtruded upon your private space. It's not easy for me. Even bitching, as I sometimes do (if only to myself), about the ways in which my lot might be better, I was raised to bear on my sleeve, and at the front of my consciousness of myself and the world around me, my intrinsic privilege, the easily forgotten incidents of my birth that render me fortunate beyond comprehension.

I sometimes imagine all the things at which I have failed to excel, either due to lack of effort or lack of ability. And yet, in the ultimate regard, I have always been a one percenter, someone sitting at the very top of the hill of goods, of safety, of fortune, relative to those around me. The human enterprise is bigger than this country's five percent of the population; if here I am only in the top quartile, say (no mean feat itself, inasmuch as I am just starting my career as an attorney), by any measure, if I already earn more than the average American family of four all by my lonesome, I owe it more to the proverbial accident of birth than I do to anything I personally bring to the table.

And yet one can't say yes all the time.

The problem is, one shouldn't say no all the time.

In Pittsburgh, it's not as constant, the pleas, the alms-seekers sitting in a puddle of their own tattered rags, redolent of poverty, supinated to their own misfortune whether incidental or self-imposed, but it's there. And the habit grows roots; I say no off-handedly. Indeed, on a day to day basis, the only evidence of my deep-seated discomfiture in the company of the radically less fortunate is my unwillingness simply to ignore, as so many passers-by do. I refuse to become someone for whom a simple, "No, sorry, can't help you today," becomes to onerous a burden. And if that is the pattern among my peers, in the larger sense, then they can have it and I happily will break ranks. It's rude to ignore people. And that goes for anyone. In New York, perhaps, the game required different rules, but here, surely I can afford the handful of words refusing to assist a few indigent individuals a day requires.

Sometimes, though, my feigned indifference reaches some inflection point, and for a few days I am a mark, gullible, a push-over. "Yeah sure" becomes as much a habit as "I'm sorry no" typically is, for whatever either is worth to whomever.

In the past four days, I have responded with money to several of the marginally more than several people who have asked. I have paid off every single person who has hit me with a halfway plausible story.

In addition to the usual cigarette or two absently given away daily (I've never been able to come up with a good reason for refusing anyone a cigarette, so I almost never do), in the short span of a weekend I have thrice given away money. Oddly, I can't remember the reason I did the first time, notwithstanding that I snap, after a long dry spell, when personal propensity meets legitimate opportunity, so it must have been a halfway interesting story.

The latter two, however, have been odd, neither of them entailing plainly povery-stricken folk, but rather the instantially unfortunate. In the first instance, while smoking outside the office on Sunday afternoon, a young man approached. He was collecting busfare; he claimed that his friend, attending the BassMasters event at the Point, was arrested for smoking pot (because the only way to watch competitive bass fishing, of course, is high). His ride had been carted off, and he needed to reason a way home. Never mind obvious questions about how one scruffy kid, but not another, was arrested when both almost certainly were partaking. Never mind that some 20-year-old stoner really didn't need my money. I gave him what I had, just the same.

Later that afternoon, driving home, on the Bloomfield end of the Bloomfield Bridge a gimpy young man hobbled from car to car with a makeshift sign that said something about an operation and getting home. By then, I knew the phase I was in, and I sighed, withdrawing my wallet before he even approached. $1 contributed toward the send-the-post-op-gimp back to Erie. So resigned to my current mindset was I that I barely even noticed the absence of pleasantry upon receipt of the dollar I offered.

It's funny, but that's typically my only rule. Say "thank you." There was a man who wandered Oakland when I was a student there bumming change, cigarettes, a moment of someone's -- anyone's -- attention. He was young; one of those trustee punk kids with a tattered McDonald's cup jingling at pedestrians' feet and a $2K pure-bred dog of this or that variety betraying the so deliberately constructed vagabond look, the safety-pinned jeans, the filthy hair. He asked me for a cigarette one day, and when I handed one to him he ambled off without so much as a moment's eye contact or an acknowledgment that any gratuity had passed between us.

The next time he asked I said no, and he stared at me, dumbfounded. "Want to know why?" I asked. He suggested with his eyes that he considered reason slightly interesting. "Because last time I gave you one, you couldn't be bothered to thank me." He didn't respond; just turned, greasy hair grazing a shoulder, and swung back toward Forbes Avenue.

To this day, that memory makes me feel dirty, and I can't say why. Perhaps it's as simple as a condescending tone. Or the suggestion that I don't give whatever I give for the sake of giving. Or maybe I don't like that I abandoned the high road; what harm would it do me simply to give him a cigarette from time to time, even if he was a dick about it? Am I going to save the world by demanding surface courtesies of the stylishly indigent? And how?

In any event, anyone who wants a buck should ask me soon. I've been throwing them around like they're diseased. Get 'em while they last.


Anonymous binky said...

Or maybe you didn't like succumbing to the middle class, holier than though attitude of wanting them to feel grateful for what you did, so that you can feel loved. My mom and I had this conversation just the other day, about how people who get disbility or welfare should be grateful and also should not spend their money on anything frivolous (her generation's belief). It's a really ugly sentiment, and not one you usually have, and one you regret feeling. It's also one that many people use to differentiate themselves from "the other," the feeling of moral superiority, the placing of conditions on the act of receiving charity. The woman on disability who bought a "cute" pair of shoes instead of dowdy ones violated the rule... yeah, you can have the charity but you have to continue to suffer. The trustafarian did the same thing.

9:59 AM  
Blogger David said...

I lived in Hong Kong for two years before ending up in Pittbsurgh. Coming to HK from a small cillage in England was, to say the least, a switch. One thing that was very hard for me to deal with there was the number of homeless. and these wern't your adidas wearing guys with McDonald Cups, or anything else. They were war victims (vietnamese for the most part) or severly crippeled, usually with a major disfigurment. one man had no chin, but rahter his lower lip melted into his chest, a result of a sever burn from agent orange. he laughed alot. another man had no legs, and would shuffel along ith a pair of wooden blocks at his hands when he was asked to move.

there were thousands more, and the gap between the very rich and the very very poor is amazingly aparant there. but these were MY two. what i mean by this is, i chose to support them. Hong Kong has a unique way and sentiment that is shared by most towards it's homeless. adopt one, or two. those are the ones you give money to. or food. or cigarettes, alcahol, whatever. A regualr traveler along a regualr path will see the same homless folks, moe or less, and the theroy was, if everyone picked one or two, they would, to an extent be able to survive on the streets. they wern't considered a nusance. just unfortunate. the sheer scale made it impossible to handle on any other level. But the eek'ed out an existance this way.

while pittsburgh has far less, i've adopted the same policy. there are two that i give money to. one more than the other. A gentleman who is on smithfield. i drop a couple coins in hhis cup maybe once a week. the other is in the strip. a very plesant women, who, redardless of if you give, always thanks you. i don't know if she gets in a BMW or a cardboard box at the end of the day, but, she gets my $.50

10:39 AM  

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